By Westly Windsor
Excitement and concern had been building since leaving Australia. For my few days in Paris before the event, I left the boxed bike at the luggage department at the airport as it was too difficult to lug onto the trains and metro. Also, I was to rendezvous with the organising bike tour company, Thomson, at the airport anyway, so it seemed an ideal arrangement.
Pre-Ride: Bike assembled in the hotel without issue, then rode a few kilometers around the city of St. Quentin, found no problems, and registration and number pick up all done. It is mandatory to carry four spare tubes, of which two are given gratis along with a T-shirt and a musette by the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), the organizing body [which organizes the Tour de France and numerous other pro races worldwide].
The Kit: Two pairs of bike shorts for comfort on the saddle and full-finger gloves with a second pair of fingerless on top to help withstand the shock up through the bars. I also used a gel under the Lizard skin bar tape. Velocity Wheels with Slime Self Healing Inner Tubes and Vittoria Roubaix open pave tires –these were the most popular andeasily recognizable by their green top. Two drink bottles, one plain water the other Gatorade, and plenty of feed bars.
The Pre-Race: St. Quentin,Sunday April 1, All Fools Day. Was I about to do something very foolish ? Too late now. Along with the four from the USA , one from Russia, one from the UK and myself from Australia, we stepped out of the hotel for the Grand Depart, only to find it was very cold, -1 Celsius (30 F), we learned. I had to return and find some warmer gloves, and could not find my leggings in the rush but did find a pair of compression “skins” and a wind-proof jacket.
The Race: 138 km (86 miles) and 15 sectors of pave to Roubaix [we thought]. Banked up in waves according to our numbers, we seemed to forget about the cold and took photos and soaked up the excitement from the crowd. We heard a gun at 7:30, and one wave after another we moved forward and with a rush we were off.
One would have thought this event was a pro race, such was the cheering from the crowd, but unlike the real pros that tend to start modestly if not slow, the amateur riders took off as though we were to ride a 30 km time trial.
I, of course, not wanting to lose my place, charged like the others and hit my straps through the left-right turns of the town. Somewhere after a few minutes I thought to see what speed we were riding and found my computer not registering. “Oh, S*#t,” just when one wants everything to work, it doesn’t.
I removed the unit from the mount and gave it a shake — this usually does the job — and twisted it back into the mount. But in my haste I didn’t lock it in properly and as we banked for the next corner it flew off the bars, yielding another utterance somewhat worse than the first. I stopped, walked back and found it in the gutter. With it securely mounted this time, and working, I remounted — pumping with adrenaline — and took off to chase down my wave.
I did catch the slower riders after a mile or so, but the bus had gone with my pals and the good packs from the start, and those riders I caught were not quite quick enough to stay with as they seemed to be riding at or slower than the cut-off pace of 20 km/12 miles per hour.
The first 40km/25miles was on paved roads and through some villages where the residents were out in numbers, the cold north wind not a concern for them, cheering and shouting “Allez-Allez” or “Bravo.” I felt very special and fired a quick “merci bien” back. This certainly helped to push me on and forget about whether I still had toes and fingers on my feet and hands. Once out of the village, it became very silent. It was evident from the lack of conversation that all were taking this event seriously and riding to their limit.
An hour down, and the cold but glorious day was starting to warm as the sun gradually rose higher, but the northeast wind was still biting. It was around this point that younger, faster riders from the latter waves were now catching and passing. I tried many times to hook on, and each time I lasted a kilometer or two, but when there was a little steepness I was dropped. Still, every little bit helps. My seed on the flat was around 30/37 kph, so I was happy as this meant I was well ahead of the sweeper but I had not yet hit the first section of cobbles.
The Pave Has Arrived
The first sector of Pave came abruptly after a sharp turn in the road and was a shock to mind and body alike. Yes, this was why I was here, but, bang, bang, bang the wheels hit the cobblestones, that felt like mountains. How could these lumps of square rock with smooth, rounded tops, be so hard?
My first instinct was to grab the brakes and secondly wonder what had happened to my eyes, I couldn’t see with any sharpness or focus. My brain, eyes, calves and biceps were like jelly on a vibrating plate.
I had come on to the cobbles at something around 30kph and should have just kept riding. It came back to me once I had slowed that it is better to ride as fast as possible, so I let go of the levers with hands now on the tops of the bars, got the legs into gear and tried to regain some speed. I also became aware that if I was to succeed in getting to Roubaix, I would have to concentrate for every second of the day in the same way one descends a high mountain switchback.
I guess my age has a bit to do with the lack of power required to zip across the cobbles, and despite my best efforts it was slow going for me on these sections — between 14 and 20kph (8.7 — 12.4 mph). However, after the first two sectors it did not seem so bad on the eyes; the brain seemed to have become conditioned.
I took note of the message to use wire bidon cages but many had not heard or chose not to heed it as in addition to adjusting to the jarring of the body and brain on these early pave sectors one had to dodge the minefield of lost drink bottles as well.
My concentration and desperation to keep the bike moving at all cost did not allow me to remember too many of the sectors by name, and I cannot say that one sector was easier or harder than another.
Some sectors were uphill, hence the slow 14kph, and were much harder, which forced me to use into the small chain ring with fear that it would shake off the teeth as it had done on my trial in Melbourne. But the day went by with a clean pair of gloves: not once did the chain drop.
Following the uphill there was always a short, steep drop and again I went for the brakes, only to be passed by the seasoned riders who just let the bike rip. Once more I learned not to use the brakes.
The first feed station at Soulzoir, at about the 60km mark, was too soon for me to need to stop. I had food and drink enough, which included a hard-boiled egg that I had taken from the breakfast table, and I was too desperate to keep moving to stop for a rest.
At some later stage on smooth bitumen I thought maybe the egg would be a change from the sweetness of the bars and bananas I had been consuming, so I reached and found the hard shell of the egg.
With one hand on the bars and the other holding the egg, I started to remove the shell with my teeth, but within moments a sharp bend came up, and I was presented with the next sector of cobbles. Two hands were needed immediately on the bars, which left the egg in the shell — firmly planted between my teeth!
I was determined to eat the thing and crunched away, shell and all!
Actually, eating an egg with the shell on was not so hard. One didn’t have to chew, but just let the cobble bumps vibrate the mouth. I had no problems with the digestion but then my mind was well and truly on the job of keeping the pedals in motion and staying upright on the bike.
The next encounter after the egg was one of the few times I actually rode close to another rider on the Pave. Bouncing along, thinking that maybe I can do this after all, I was holding a wheel and wondering If I should just stay there or ride past when a bidon flew off the bike in front and, “(third profane utterance of the day), I’m going to hit it.” I don’t know how, but I missed it. Back to concentrating on the job.
How Do You Say “Wheelsucker” in French?
Somewhere on the flat road before sector 10 “Tranchee/Trouee d’Arenberg” I passed a rider of my ilk making his way as best he could, only to find that I was a good wheel to follow. Now, this does not happen often. So, inspired, I made a bit more pace, but the glue was firm. I came into the area of the old village d’Arenberg, miner’s cottages on my right, and crossed the railway line. My idea was to stop at the beginning of the Trouee and take some pictures, and this I did, but not so my poursuivant. Hewas off and gone up the cobbles with new-found energy.
Photos taken, I set off to ride the most famous section of Pave and again found fear rising as there seemed to be more riders close by, and the avenue between the trees looked like there was no end to it.
Sector 10 was marked as 2.4 km, but given that many of the previous sectors had distance markers that seemed to bear no resemblance to the actual distance ridden, I wondered just how long I would have to endure these huge lumps. But again I thought to myself, Wasn’t that why I was here? Concentrate, and try to make up the time lost from taking photographs.
A bit silly, I know, but a Gran Fondo/ Race / Challenge is just that, I and wanted to do my very best. Suddenly, there I was at the end of the forest, back onto a flat surface and cadence back to 90+.
How could it be? There in front was my poursuivant (left, in photo at the finish) from before the Tranchee and with a “salut mon ami” I passed him, only to find him back on my wheel. Then he took off again and left me for dead on the next sector (9) of Pave. We repeated this pattern, two more sectors, up to the second feed station — where I felt the need to stop and refresh. Cake, cheese and two cups of Coke, and I was back in the saddle determined not to stop again before Roubaix.
I once more found myself behind a familiar black Cervelo jersey and again I could not resist a greeting as I passed, to find (yet again!) I had the rider on my wheel. As before, each time we arrived on the Pave I was dropped, and this now seemed like a competition. Somehow, I had to stay in touch on the cobbles. But how?
I tried to put some pressure on between each sector but his glue to my wheel was strong. When I offered him the chance to work at the front, he declined, saying “d’sol impossible.”
We hit the penultimate sector of Pave [sector 2] together, and this time I wondered, Could I try harder? If I could stay close, just maybe he was getting tired and I’d have a chance.
We took different sides of the road, trying to find some faster surface than the very rough Welems sector cobles, although this was only marked as 2*cobbles (supposedly, not quite so rough), it seemed as rough as any we had encountered. I swapped sides and rode some in the middle in an effort to hang on, and we came off together.
As usual, he took my wheel immediately but as we turned a sharp left at a duck farm I saw the sign — Roubaix 3km — which turned out to be 5km, but it was short enough for me to think, Put your head down and ride as hard as the legs would allow and hope. The glue stretched, and somewhere it broke and I was free to ride into Roubaix alone and onto the last, easiest and shortest cobbled sector.
Here, after nearly six and a half hours was the most historic Velodrome in the world. I was about to ride my first ever track. Moist of eye and sweat building under my jersey, I had come unscathed through L’enferdu Nord.
Sad it Was Over
With both arms raised, I crossed the finish line tired and weary and emotionally high, but just a little sad that it was all over.
My thanks and best wishes to Jan-Guy Sudre for giving me some competition and pushing me that little bit extra, we enjoyed an embrace and handshakeat the finish. We would have both made it but we gave each other a little story to remember and talk about.
“On this day the fields of Flanders were flat and tilled, the air was sweet and cold, only the bodies of riders at their sport did battle. For me and many others the path to Roubaix was not that of hell but of a passion fulfilled.”
Postscript: Thanks to RBR’s Coach Fred Matheny and Jim Langley for putting me on the right track regarding wheel selection and spoke count. I had no issues with the new wheels, which actually arrived 28/32 and not 32/36 spoke count, as was ordered. Weighing 65 kg (143 lbs), I rode with tire pressures of 85/90 psi, front and rear.
My idea of double gloves and bike shorts worked great, and I had no blisters or more than usual soreness on the sit bones. The aluminium wire bidon cages kept my bottles perfectly tight, and attention to my derailleur before leaving by renewing the jockey wheels I’m sure helped not to drop the chain once, as had happened on my test riding in Melbourne. The icing on the cake: No Punctures!
I had heard many reports of sore hands, arms and shoulders lasting more than a week, yet I had none immediately after or since. I have wondered why and concluded that I just didn’t ride hard enough. But just maybe my regular strength training in the gym and some Boxercise sessions made a difference.
Thanks to Thomson Bike Tours for sending me all the info on the event and providing the transfers, entry and hotel bookings. It was an easy way to do such an event coming from a far distance.
Westly Windsor is a 68-year-old roadie from Melbourne, Australia. An RBR Premium Member, he graciously agreed to share his account of riding the first-ever Paris-Roubaix Gran Fondo in April 2012.